The Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, centered in the central and northern part of the country, is a place where leaders torture and kill people who do not follow a draconian interpretation of Sunni Islam.

But ISIS has a particular hostility toward followers of Shi’i Islam, as three incidents from the summer of 2014 highlight. ISIS ordered the mass murder of 1,500 Shi'i militiamen in Tikrit, a Sunni stronghold and the former hometown of Saddam Hussein. When ISIS forces drove through villages surrounding Kirkuk, Shiite families played dead in the hopes that they would not be gunned down with others of their same identity. And when the Islamic State captured a prison in Mosul, its leaders ordered all Shi'is and other minority peoples into a ditch and killed them.

Flag of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) or "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL). This flag is also used by al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Boko Haram.

Such targeted killing of non-Sunnis, particularly of those born as Shi'is, led a reporter for The Economist in September 2014 to write that the Islamic State “is both the product and the chief instigator of the ever deepening Sunni-Shia enmity that runs from Bahrain to Lebanon.”

In Iraq, the population is approximately 60% Shi'is and 20% Arab Sunnis. There is a widespread sense that the present conflict between these two sectarian groups is a case of longstanding, theologically driven hatreds reasserting themselves again. As such, some political pundits conclude, negotiations cannot overcome divine principles dictating distinct worldviews that preclude peaceful coexistence and the forging of a coherent nation-state.

When the Western media does inject pragmatic power considerations into its analysis of sectarian tensions in Iraq, they are of courte durée. Journalists often blame the present crisis on former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He came to office in 2006 and used his position to promote Shi'i interests at the expense of the Sunni minority.

Religious and Ethnic groups in Iraq.

Many posited that Prime Minister al-Maliki's resignation in September 2014 and the appointment of the more inclusive Haider al-Abadi would improve the situation in Iraq. After all, Mr. al-Abadi formed a government consisting of both Shi'is and Sunnis, thereby making a deliberate effort to draw support from the Sunni Islamic State. And yet, more than one year after his appointment, the Islamic State has yet to be neutralized.

Sunni and Shi'i identities have both religious and political dimensions. And it is the politics, I argue, that causes the conflict in Iraq, while the religion provides a rhetoric accentuating difference between political players. In this way, there are secular roots to the animosity that many outsiders view as an ancient and irreconcilable religious divide.

In order to understand the interplay between politics and religion we need to look back at the closing stages of the Ottoman era and the rise of modern nations in the Middle East. The recent Sunni-Shi’i struggles for power and for influence over the institutions of the state emerged within the dynamics of the Ottoman era, when this Sunni empire contended for land and treasure with Shi'i Persia.

Imam Ali Mosque, Najaf, Iraq.

The Ottoman Empire ended 100 years ago, but its legacy still influences sectarian relations in Iraq. When European powers disbanded it after World War I, most power brokers in its Iraqi provinces were Sunni Arabs who had proven loyal to the Ottomans in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This would have long-term implications for the development of modern Iraq, because these Sunnis and their descendants were able to perpetuate their monopolization of the institutions of the Iraqi state.

The present aggravation of relations between Sunnis and Shi'is in Iraq is less a legacy of religious conflict than a manifestation of Ottoman policies enunciated amidst that empire's troubled end.

The Sunni-Shi'i Split

The Sunni-Shi'i split dates to 10 October 680 CE (10 Muharram 61), and its origins stem from a war over control of the power—both political and economic—of the nascent Islamic empire being forged at that time. Power and influence, not dogma and doctrine, were at the core of the Sunni-Shi'i divide from its very beginning.

Islam spread quickly in the area now called the Middle East. By the time of the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, Muslims had united the Arabian Peninsula. The Prophet’s successor, Abu Bakr (r. 632-634), led the first military excursion into the area that is now Syria and Iraq. (This historic detail explains why Islamic State “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took this nom de guerre.) Abu Bakr as well as the next three so-called Rightly Guided Caliphs were chosen by a consensus of the community. This was not a democracy; it was instead a participatory oligarchy.

The concord sustaining this oligarchy during the first 48 years of the Islamic Empire crumbled in 680, as the Muslim elite and their followers struggled to control the financial and political structures of the emerging Islamic empire.

Hasan ibn Ali served his father, Ali, during the Battle of Siffin, 657 CE.  Folio from a 14th century Tarikhnama (Book of history) by Balami.  

The defining crisis stemmed from the assassination of Ali (r. 656-661), son-in-law of the Prophet and the last of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, as he prayed at a mosque in Kufa, a city in present-day Iraq.

After Ali's death, two factions supported two different rulers. Some championed the appointment of Hassan, a son of Ali and so a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Others backed Muawiyya, based in what is now Syria, who controlled the most powerful army in the Islamic Empire.

Ultimately, Hassan and his brother Husayn, fearing civil war, came to an agreement with Muawiyya. In 661, they ceded state power to him as long as he agreed not to establish a dynasty. This was not to be, for his son Yazid claimed state authority upon his father’s death 19 years later. Yazid proclaimed himself a king of the new Islamic empire by virtue of family ties. And so, community participation gave way to a system of dynastic succession by which power was transferred based on bloodlines, not merit or a consensus of the community.

This conflict of dynastic succession culminated in Karbala, in modern Iraq, when Yazid’s troops mercilessly slaughtered Husayn and 70 of his followers in an event now commemorated as ashura. Shi'is believe that Husayn was a martyr who died the rightful leader of the political community.

Pilgrims gather for the ashura commemoration in Karbala, Iraq, January 19, 2008. The 10-day event commemorates the death of Husayn.

This confrontation and resultant massacre engendered the Sunni-Shi'i split. Sunnis were content to have Yazid emerge victorious and establish the first great Islamic dynasty, one that would rule territories in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Shi'is continue to decry this Battle of Karbala as an internecine tragedy, insisting the power of the state should have passed to Husayn.

In general, there is nothing culturally divisive about the Sunni-Shi'i split. Adherents of both sects celebrate the same holidays. They read the same Quran. They both pray five times a day facing Mecca.

Given such, it is not surprising to find that many provinces within the Arab-Islamic world have experienced normalized relations at certain times in history and also moments when Sunnis and Shi'is found that they could act in concert.

For example, in 750 CE, Sunnis and Shi'is together participated in the Abbasid Revolution, which would put in place a dynasty, the Abbasids (750-1258), remembered as fostering an inclusive and multiethnic state.

And in Iraq, Sunnis and Shi'is have often managed to maintain their own distinct religious customs while co-existing peacefully.

The Battle of Karbala, 680 CE. Painted by Abbas Al-Musavi between 1868 and 1933.

Nonetheless, the historic bid for power on the Fields of Karbala did lead to one important dogmatic difference between Sunnis and Shi'is: the Shi'i Doctrine of the Imamate. The prophet Muhammad had been a religious, political and military leader. Yazid and his successors, who represented the Sunni conception of leadership, assumed only the political and military duties, leaving scholars to debate religious questions and settle them by consensus.

For Shi'is, however, there is one Imam who, though not a prophet, is a divinely inspired religio-political leader of the community. He is the authoritative interpreter of God's will as formulated in Islamic law, a law that, given his divine inspiration, he best understands. In this way, Shi'is believe in continued heavenly guidance through the divinely inspired leadership of an Imam.

More importantly, based on subsequent interpretations and understandings of the Sunni-Shi'i split, the overlords of Iraq—the Ottomans, the British, and the Baath party—all implemented policies based on mistaken assumptions about the divided loyalties of Shi'is. Shi'is, in turn, used the rhetoric of what these rulers perceived as a rival faction of Islam to oppose an authoritarian political system dominated by adherents of Sunni Islam.

The Ottoman Wars with Persia

The factionalism that now beleaguers Iraq stems from this seventh-century conflict as enunciated and acted upon during the Ottoman Empire, particularly during its waning days in the in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Forged from the military forays of Turkish nomads in the early 14th century, the Ottomans, Sunni nomads from Anatolia, succeeded the Abbasids as the next great Islamic dynasty. Ottomans were a warring people, for the conquest of territory legitimized the rule of the reigning caliph. But the dominance of Eastern Persia prevented their conquest of territory beyond the Iraqi provinces, which became oft-contested borderlands.

By the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire had ruled the area now known as Iraq—then referred to by Westerners as Mesopotamia—for 300 years. This Mesopotamian territory consisted of three Ottoman provinces, with each centering on a principal city.

Map of Mesopotamia.

Basra was in the coastal south, and this was where the population was—and still is—predominantly Shi'i. Baghdad was in the central plains, and the people there were—and still are—primarily Arab and Sunni. Mosul was in the mountainous north, the heart of primarily Sunni Kurdish territory.

The 2.2 million inhabitants of this territory were at the easternmost limit of the Ottoman Empire, next to Persia, which, unlike the Ottoman Empire, was a polity ruled and inhabited almost exclusively by Shi'is (90% or more of the population practiced Shi'ism). The Shi'is in these Iraqi provinces increasingly became a marginalized majority and the Ottomans feared that the provincial Shi'is did not share their Sunni subjects’ loyalty to the imperial state.

As Sunnis, Ottomans feared that their Shi'i subjects in Mesopotamia might fall under the sway of prominent Shi'i religious scholars and clerics in Persia and so act against Ottoman interests.

Neighboring Persia also regularly threatened—often in retaliation for Ottoman forays into its territory—an invasion in order to take the provinces of Basra and Baghdad. A Sunni dynasty was pitted against a Shi'i one. Ottoman and Persian forces fought wars in 1548-1555, 1574-1589, 1603, and 1616. In 1623, Persia managed to capture Baghdad, which it occupied until 1638.

Ottoman and Persian Empires, circa 1912.

Following a peace treaty, relations between the two political entities remained at a standstill until the late 18th century, when Persia, now under the Qajar dynasty, again threatened an offensive. By 1823, the Ottomans and the Qajars had already fought nine wars, leaving little doubt that inter-imperial bellicosity would not diminish even as, later in the century, a new generation of Young Ottomans and Persians began to pressure the government for constitutional reform.

And so, the leaders of the Ottoman state decided to enact policies to protect against Shi'i subversion. For example, they promoted only Sunnis, not Shi'is, in the military and the government. In this way, Sunnis in the provinces of Iraq came to have more access to the economic and political benefits of the formal institutions of the evolving state.

Sunni Dominance and British State Formation

After World War I, England and France amalgamated the provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra to create the new state of Iraq. The British ruled this country for twelve years as a mandate. The British reified sectarian divisions fostered by 19th-century Ottoman policies, keeping the Sunnis as the political elite and perpetuated the Sunni dominance inherited from Ottoman era.

The British conceptualized Shi'is as restive and prone to irrational forms of protest. In the Ottoman era, Shi'is generally commemorated the death of Husayn, or ashura, with more fervor than Sunnis.

British troops entering Baghdad, Iraq March 1917.

For example, many Shi'i villages and towns held a type of Islamic passion play that gave life to the massacre of Husayn and his 70 followers by an oppressive ruler, and this became an allegorical treatment of how economically and politically deprived Shi'is felt under the Ottomans. Some Shi'is who paraded to mosques in cities—as in Kufa, where Ali had been assassinated—practiced self-flagellation. This led one horrified Englishman to declare Shi'is “terrifying in their single-mindedness … savage and revengeful.”

Shi'is were eager to contribute to the nascent state, but they were not enthusiastic about a system of colonial governance.

Thus, there was a revolt in 1920, one in which Sunnis and Shi'is often acted in concert against the British. Anti-colonial discourse in Sunni and Shi'i mosques could be heard as early as May, and armed revolt in the countryside began in June. Within five months, 500 British troops had been killed in action while as many as 10,000 Iraqis lay dead.

Most importantly for the sectarian divisions in Iraq, the British blamed primarily Shi'i clerics who had spoken vociferously against a system of governance that they rightly grasped as blatantly unjust. The British jailed and exiled many Shi'i clerics, like Mahdi al-Khalisi.

King Faysal I.

In 1921, British politicians appointed Amir Faysal to rule over Iraq as a king, thereby establishing a new Sunni dynasty. Born in 1885 in Mecca, a city in the Arabian Peninsula that Muslims consider the holiest in Islam, Faysal had proven himself amenable to British interests. In 1916, he had participated in the celebrated Arab Revolt, a conflict that neutralized 30,000 Ottoman troops on the eastern front.

The British hoped that Faysal's putative descent from the Prophet Muhammad would legitimize this new dynasty. The new king brought with him a Sunni cohort to assist in ruling over Iraq. In this way, British rule promoted Sunni interests over those of Shi'is.

When the British allowed Iraqis to rule Iraq as independent country in 1932, Faysal promised “full and complete protection of life and liberty will be assured to all inhabitants of Iraq without distinction of birth, nationality, language, race or religion.”

Such a democratic notion, however, proved difficult to implement because the Sunni elite did not want to give up their political and economic advantages. Faysal and his successors—the Hashemite dynasty—did not fashion a pluralistic regime.

After all, a true constitutional monarchy in which democracy flourished in the majority-Shi'i state would have been inconvenient for the Sunni elite, who were rather enamored with their privileged position, and for their British patrons, who, concerned with investments in the oil industry, did not want to risk a government unfavorable to their interests.

Thus, a cycle of political violence came to define Iraqi politics throughout the 20th century. Discontented Iraqis—whether the beleaguered Shiite majority or the rebellious Kurdish minority—increasingly sought political change through militant means.

In 1936, Iraq had the dubious honor of being the first Middle Eastern state to experience a military coup, an effort aimed in part at the incorporation of Shi'is into the Prime Minister's government. Hashemite rule ended violently in 1958 as a revolutionary regime, one that tried to undercut the privileges of the ruling elite, executed the entire royal family.

Iraq would undergo three more military coups before the Baath party of Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein seized and consolidated power in 1968.